In the NFC, few teams have been viewed as being the dominant teams of the conference. For the last few years, the playoff discussion has always included Seattle, Green Bay and Carolina. Other teams have tried to make a run at being able to take it to the next level and be a legitimate Super Bowl contender.
The Minnesota Vikings and St. Louis Rams are two of those teams that have been amassing talent with the expectation of breaking through. Both teams have improved themselves dramatically on defense, which is expected to dictate the pace of Sunday’s game. The Rams have a young playmaking defensive tackle that is quickly emerging as a Pro Bowl caliber talent, making the battles between Aaron Donald and Vikings right guard Mike Harris this week’s key matchup.
In just his second season, Donald is the fourth member of the Rams front four that was drafted in the first round by St. Louis and he has been a difference maker on the defensive front. He moves around a bit depending on formation, but Harris is expecting that he will be spending most of the day on him.
“He plays to their strength in a formation, so as a 3-technique, he’ll line up on whatever is their strong side,” Harris said. “For most plays that will have him lining up opposite me. I’m preparing for him because he has a lot of talent. He’s very strong on passing downs because he has the speed and quickness to get off on the snap and I have to be prepared for him.”
Defensive tackles in the NFL are known more for their ability to clog running lanes and get pressure on the quarterback on passing downs. There isn’t the expectation that they will get sacks. The hope is more to get a quarterback off his spot and lead him into other pass rushers whose job it is to wrap them up and bring them down.
Donald is clearly an exception to that rule. As a rookie, Donald recorded nine sacks, a very impressive number for a defensive tackle. Seven games into the 2015 season, he’s halfway home to matching that total already – having posted 4½ sacks through the first seven games.
At 6-foot-1, 285 pounds, he’s enormous by normal human standards, but undersized by how the typical NFL defensive tackle is built. Yet he dominates because of his combination of speed, power and technique, which makes him a handful for any offensive lineman.
“He’s a playmaker,” Harris said. “I feel like I’m going to have to outwork him. He’s not that big, so I’m going to have to use my size to my advantage and also try to use quickness to keep him from getting off at the snap.”
When asked to compare him to somebody they’ve faced, both Harris and fellow guard Brandon Fusco mentioned former Lion Ndamukong Suh. Asked to clarify, because Suh is a much larger player, Harris pointed to both of them being able to blow up plays. If either of them gets an advantage on a guard from the snap, there’s rarely a time that he gets stymied when he has that initial advantage.
They arrived at their success with different skill sets, but Donald can be just as dominant and game-changing as Suh when he is on his game and anticipating the snap count.
“His first-step explosiveness is what you have to concern yourself with,” Harris said. “He can shoot gaps very well and is hard to contain if you let him get off the snap quick. He uses his explosion to create power, so I’m going to have to use technique and get some double-teams on him. I know the coaches have a good game plan ready for him. We’ll be fine if we can execute.”
The Rams defense has blue-chip talent all along the front, including former first-rounders Robert Quinn, Chris Long, Michael Brockers and former Lion Nick Fairley. Long is out with injury, but all of them are capable of making plays and making life miserable for both Adrian Peterson in the running game and Teddy Bridgewater in the passing game.
But the second-year tackle who has already showed the ability to be able to take over games at the pro level is the man of primary concern when it comes to making the plays that can kill drives or force an opponent into bad down-and-distance situations, making the trench war between Donald and Harris this week’s matchup to watch.